The alchemasters apprent.., p.2
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       The Alchemaster's Apprentice: A Novel, p.2

           Walter Moers
 

  Up a spiral stone staircase he hurried, then through a library of mouldering Bookemistic tomes and across a big room filled with dust-sheeted furniture that looked like an array of bulky ghosts in the flickering candlelight. Next came a deserted dining room with flocks of Leathermice2 engaged in daring aerobatics below its lofty ceiling. Ignoring those grisly lodgers as well, Ghoolion climbed another flight of stone stairs and came out in a draughty chamber lined with cages of all kinds, from aviaries of bamboo or wire to oak dog kennels and bear cages with bars of polished steel. The higher he went, the fiercer the gale that blew in through the window embrasures, making the curtains flap incessantly and stirring up whirlwinds of dust. Every now and then the chimneys emitted moans and howls suggestive of mastiffs being tortured to death in a dungeon.

  Ghoolion came eventually to a stone doorway engraved with alchemistic symbols: the entrance to the big laboratory in which he spent most of his time. This, so rumour had it, was where he generated the bad weather that so often prevailed in Malaisea, and where he bred the bacteria and viruses with which he contaminated the local wells, causing influenza epidemics and children’s ailments, whooping cough and nettle-rash. Here stood sacks filled with migraine- and nightmare-inducing pollen from poisonous plants, ready to be sprinkled on the town from the castle windows. Here Ghoolion thought up curses and created Leyden Manikins, purely in order to torture them. Here, too, he composed the ghastly music that issued from his castle at night, depriving the Malaiseans of sleep and sometimes, even, of their wits. Some became so utterly exhausted, it was said, that they found peace at last by hanging themselves.

  For Ghoolion was the town’s de facto ruler. He was its uncrowned tyrant, its black heart and sick brain. And its mayor. All the town councillors and all the inhabitants of Malaisea were merely puppets dangling from strings operated by the Alchemaster-in-Chief.

  Ghoolion’s Laboratory

  Echo did not wake up until Ghoolion extricated him from the depths of his black cloak. Sleepily, the little Crat surveyed his surroundings. The remarkable laboratory was festively illuminated by numerous candles burning amid retorts and iron cauldrons, on stacks of books and in many-branched candelabra, which cast long shadows over its walls. The air was filled with a chorus of long-drawn-out sighs and groans, but Echo couldn’t see any living creature capable of producing such sounds, so he attributed them to the wind blowing in through the windows.

  The laboratory was situated on the top floor of the castle. Suspended above a coal fire in the middle of the room was a gigantic copper cauldron black with soot, and the soup simmering within it created fat bubbles that gave off a noisome stench. The crooked walls were partly concealed by rickety wooden shelves laden with books and scientific instruments, scrolls of parchment and stuffed animals.

  Hanging here and there, too, were more of Ghoolion’s disaster paintings, slates covered with alchemistic symbols and mathematical diagrams, and maps illustrating astronomical constellations. Years of smoke and chemical fumes had stained the vaulted ceiling and warped it into a dark, undulating expanse of timber. Dangling from it on cords and chains were planetary and lunar globes, astronomical measuring instruments and stuffed birds and reptiles. Ancient tomes with gnarled leather covers and tarnished metal clasps were lying around all over the place, many with handwritten notes protruding from their dusty, cobwebby pages. Among them stood countless glass vessels of every size and shape, some empty, some filled with fluids or powders of various hues, and others occupied by Leyden Manikins tapping vainly on the walls of their transparent prisons. The rusty alchemical furnace that dominated this whole chaotic scene resembled an ironclad warrior standing guard over a battlefield.

  Echo didn’t know where to look and what to fear the most when Ghoolion put him down on the floor. He had never seen so many astonishing and menacing objects under one roof. When he caught sight of a stuffed but lifelike Nanofox baring its teeth at him from one of the lower shelves, he arched his back and hissed with his tail fluffed out like a flue brush.

  Ghoolion laughed. ‘He can’t hurt you any more,’ he said. ‘I gutted him, rendered him down for his fat, stuffed him with sawdust and wood shavings, and sewed him up again - it took me seven hundred stitches. I had to insert a wire armature in his jaw to reproduce the facial expression. That snarl of yours tells me I made a good job of it.’

  Echo shuddered at the thought that the Alchemaster would gut him, extract his fat and stuff him with sawdust when the next full moon came round. He might even wire him up with his tail erect and his back arched in memory of this moment.

  ‘Now for our contract,’ said Ghoolion, and he withdrew a sheet of parchment covered with alchemistic symbols from a stack of documents. Taking pen and ink, he proceeded to scrawl on the back of it, which was blank. Echo found it far from pleasurable to watch him drawing up the contract. The Alchemaster was muttering to himself with such glee as he wrote, and his eyes were glittering with such undisguised malevolence, that the terms of the contract could hardly be to his, Echo’s, advantage. All he caught were phrases such as ‘irrevocably committed’, ‘indissolubly binding’, ‘legally enforceable’ and the like. In fact, however, he couldn’t have cared less how unreasonable Ghoolion’s terms were - just as long as he got something to eat in the very near future.

  ‘There,’ Ghoolion said at last. ‘Now sign!’

  He held out a red ink pad. Echo applied his paw, first to the pad and then to the foot of the document. Before he could even glance at the wording, Ghoolion snatched the parchment away and stowed it in a drawer.

  ‘Take a look around,’ he commanded, indicating the room with a dramatic gesture. ‘This is your new home - the last you’ll ever have in your life, so I advise you to savour every moment. Imagine you’re dying, but painlessly, without the disagreeable symptoms of some terrible wasting disease. You can eat what you like while you’re dying. Consider yourself lucky! Very few creatures are granted such a pleasant end. I’ll try to make it as quick and painless as possible when the moment comes. I’m an expert.’ He gazed at his bony hand, which he had raised like an executioner showing his victim the lethal implement. ‘Now let’s start fattening you up right away. We mustn’t waste another moment of your precious time.’

  Ghoolion’s heartless words gave Echo the shivers, but he did as he was told and took a look at his new - and very last! - home, trying to control his emotions and fears so as not to expose himself to any more of the Alchemaster’s barbed remarks. He wanted to study every detail of his surroundings because he knew from experience that fear subsides more quickly the more you look your fears in the face.

  It struck him, as he surveyed the room, that the shadows on the walls were moving. The bulky shadow of the alchemical furnace, which had loomed over a bookcase a moment earlier, was now slanting across a grey slate covered with mathematical formulae. How could that be? Did the shadows in Ghoolion’s domain lead a life of their own? To Echo, anything seemed possible in this weirdest of all the buildings in Malaisea. But Crats are level-headed creatures, so he set about getting to the bottom of the mystery. Did the light sources move by mechanical means? Cautiously, he clambered over some worm-eaten books, made his way between two stacks of time-yellowed documents and squeezed past some big glass bottles thick with dust. Nearer and nearer he crept to one of the candles, only to be brought up short by a magnifying glass the size of a soup plate. He froze. His determination to show no sign of fear evaporated, for the sight that confronted him through the dirty lens was so bewildering, so startling and unreal, that it put all the laboratory’s other sensations in the shade: he saw a grotesquely magnified candle with a pain-racked face streaked with waxen tears. To his utter consternation, Echo saw that it was almost imperceptibly propelling itself along at a snail’s pace, sobbing and sighing as it went.

  ‘An Anguish Candle,’ Ghoolion explained with a touch of pride, stirring something in a big bowl. ‘One of my minor alchemical creations. It consists of candle wax, a Leyden M
anikin and some snails from the Gargyllian Bollogg’s Skull, very slowly simmered over a low flame - plus one or two secret alchemical ingredients, of course. The wick is woven from the spinal column of a Blindworm and the ganglia of an Oxenfrog. Candles of this type are extremely sensitive to heat and spend their entire existence in the most terrible agony. Imagine if your tail were on fire - that’s the kind of agony I mean.’

  ‘What would happen if you blew it out?’ asked Echo, who was thoroughly unnerved by the sight of the tormented creature. He now saw that several more of the laboratory’s candles were propelling themselves along in an equally painful manner. If he strained his ears, he could even hear them moaning softly all around him.

  ‘Its sufferings would cease, of course,’ Ghoolion replied curtly. ‘But what’s the use of a candle that isn’t alight, let alone an Anguish Candle that doesn’t groan with pain?’

  His tone implied that Echo wasn’t all there. With a shake of the head, he put down the bowl of sweetened cream he’d been stirring. Then, taking a small phial from a shelf, he added a few drops of some colourless liquid. Instantly, the cream was infused with the glorious scent of vanilla. To Echo, even that simple trick seemed like magic. He tore his eyes away from the Anguish Candle and fell on the bowl as if dying of thirst.

  ‘Steady, steady!’ Echo had only lapped up a couple of mouthfuls when Ghoolion took the bowl away and deposited it on a shelf out of his reach. ‘Not too much on an empty stomach! Besides, that cream was only an appetiser. We must proceed systematically. Everything has to be done on a scientific basis, and that includes fattening you up. So give me a list of your favourite dishes in exact order of preference. Which do you like best of all?’

  Taking a pencil and a sheet of paper, Ghoolion gazed at Echo sternly. The little Crat knit his brow and searched his memory for favourite foods.

  ‘Best of all?’ he said. ‘Grilled mouse bladders. Grilled Piddlemouse bladders, to be precise.’

  ‘Right,’ said Ghoolion, and made a note. ‘Grilled Piddlemouse bladders. Hardly gourmet fare, but still. Go on …’

  The Fat Collection

  Ghoolion’s origins were shrouded in mystery. Some said he hailed from the Graveyard Marshes and was a nocturnal growth that had sprouted from a bed of cadaveric compost. Others believed him to be one of the mysterious Undead of Dullsgard, the city no living creature could enter without being transformed into a walking corpse. He was also rumoured to be one of the legendary Five Horsemen of the Apocalypse who had left the other four and gone freelance. Many swore that he came from an unknown continent, not from Zamonia at all, having flown there across the sea on black wings, which he unfurled only when no one was looking. Still others claimed that Ghoolion had come straight from Netherworld, the legendary realm of darkness beneath Zamonia, and had risen to the surface to pave the way for an imminent invasion by the Evil One. Different though these theories about his background were, they all had one thing in common: not a single citizen of Malaisea had ever dared to broach them in the Alchemaster’s presence.

  The most prolific source of rumours, however, was Ghoolion’s legendary fat collection. This contained no vegetable fats, no olive or burdock, walnut or rapeseed, trefoil or moonflower oils. To gain admittance to Ghoolion’s collection, a fat had to have been obtained from some living creature, and even if it fulfilled that requirement, the Alchemaster was very choosy. His exclusive selection contained no common-or-garden pork fat, beef suet or goose grease, for he limited it to the adipose tissue of creatures few people cared to eat. The greater their aversion and the rarer the breed, the more the Alchemaster coveted it for himself.

  Many will find it hard to accustom themselves to the notion that a Tortoise Spider3 possesses a store of fat. More repugnant still is the thought of extracting it from such a monstrous creature’s body. However, anyone who has grasped that this process and hundreds of even more frightful activities formed part of Ghoolion’s daily routine will readily accept that the happenings in the Alchemaster’s home were the most remarkable in all Malaisea.

  Ghoolion possessed the fat of rare Flutterbugs and Murches, Porcotrolls and Werewolves, Cralamanders and Luminants, Snow-swallows and Sunworms, Lunar Mantices and Speluncodiles, Tortovulks and Bathystars, Jellybellies and Tunnel Dragons, Mummybugs and Skunkodors, Ubufants and Zamingos. One had only to name a creature whose appearance on a restaurant menu would have evoked universal revulsion to be assured that Ghoolion possessed a sample of its fat. He was versed in numerous methods of fat extraction ranging from alchemical liposuction to surgical amputation and primitive mechanical extrusion under pressure. But rendering down was still his favourite process, which was why the gigantic cauldron in his laboratory continued to seethe day and night, filling the castle with an endless succession of unappetising smells.

  The Alchemaster needed these fats mainly in order to preserve exceptionally volatile substances. In addition to smells, these included fumes, fog, vapour and gases. Using his alchemical equipment, Ghoolion was able to trap and conserve the nebulous mixture of steam and fat droplets continuously given off by his cauldron. He possessed samples extracted from the notorious Murkholm jellyfish and preserved in Shnark dripping, and his collection included cadaveric gas from the Graveyard Marshes, particles of will-o’-the-wisp, Troglotrolls’ mouth odour and the farts of the sulphurous Toadfish. He had trapped and stored thousands of volatile substances, each in the only kind of fat he considered suitable for the purpose.

  Installed on a wooden platform approached by a short flight of steps was the most sensational contraption in the laboratory. An impressive agglomeration of glass balloons, some filled with bubbling liquids, others with taxidermal specimens, it was attached to spiral copper tubes, crackling alchemical batteries, Bunsen burners, armatures of precious metal, brass vessels, barometers and hygrometers, pressure cookers, bellows and gold valves. This was the Ghoolionic Preserver, the Alchemaster’s greatest invention to date, with which volatile substances were trapped, condensed and coated in a layer of fat.

  Every time Ghoolion used the machine to preserve a new specimen, the apparatus would wheeze and splutter for minutes on end, then finally eject a ball of fat the size of an orange. This he would bear solemnly downstairs to the castle cellars, where there was a low-ceilinged but cool and spacious chamber in which he stored all his balls of fat, neatly arrayed on stone shelves like a connoisseur’s vintage wines.

  Echo had heard rumours of Ghoolion’s collection. At the moment, however, he devoted no thought, either to the collection or to the exclusive place he himself would soon occupy within it. For the time being he merely roamed the laboratory, hungry and inquisitive, while Ghoolion busied himself with his alchemical equipment. He tried to ignore the Anguish Candles because the sight of them made his skin crawl. As long as you didn’t scrutinise the pathetic creatures too closely, they looked almost like ordinary candles. They moved so slowly that their progress was undetectable by the casual observer, but their muffled sighs and groans occasionally carried to Echo’s ears, depending on the angle at which he happened to have cocked them.

  But there were so many other things to be discovered in this most remarkable room in the most remarkable building in Malaisea. Echo took a closer look at one of the crowded bookshelves, which held an unsystematic jumble of parchments, letters, memoranda, reference books and taxidermal specimens. His mistress had taught him the Zamonian alphabet as a Critten, so he could read the titles of the books on the lowest shelf with ease:Distillation for Advanced Students

  The Heptagram of Sublimation

  Furnaces of the Soul

  Sulphur, Saltpetre and Sulphate of Ammonia,

  the Alchemist’s Three Great Sibilants

  Golem Gâteau and Mandrake Soufflé,

  Choice Recipes for the Alchemical Cuisine

  Antimony: Lethal Poison and Sovereign Remedy

  The Myth of ‘Prima Zateria’

  Metals Susceptible to Pain

  and How to Avoid Hurti
ng Them

  Zamonium, a Curse or a Blessing?

  Echo came to a sudden halt. A title had caught his eye:Alchemical Taboos

  by

  Succubius Ghoolion

  A book by Ghoolion himself? There! There was another:The Confessionator,

  A Device for the Interrogation

  of Uncooperative Subjects

  by

  Succubius Ghoolion

  It hadn’t occurred to Echo that the Alchemaster possessed a forename because everyone referred to him as Ghoolion. He knew very little about his host, and even less about exactly what lay in store for him.

  The Alchemaster and the Ugglies

  Every sizeable town in Zamonia has a municipal alchemist responsible for dealing with Ugglian affairs. He issues Ugglies in transit with fortune-telling permits (or withholds them, whichever), checks the account books of resident Ugglies, inoculates them against Ugglyitis (a disease exclusive to Ugglies that sends them into a weeks-long prophetic trance in which they foretell disasters nobody wants to hear about), delouses them annually and collects their soothsaying taxes. In Malaisea, Ghoolion performed all these tasks with the utmost zeal. He would regularly lock up a few Ugglies in the municipal jail, just for the hell of it, and torment them for days on end with musical renditions on the migrainophone and screamatina.

 

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